Over his career, Alexander McCall Smith has lost track of how many books he’s penned.
“I’ve stopped counting, I really have. It’s over 100 if you include the children’s books,” he said.
He’ll be in Iowa City Nov. 12 to promote his latest book, “The Colors of all the Cattle,” the 19th book in Smith’s popular No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series,
They’re one of several series Smith writes; he is also the author of the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series and the 44 Scotland Street series.
He said the inspiration that makes him so prolific comes from the world around him, of which he is a careful observer.
“I think that if one keeps ones eyes open, walking about, you see all sort of interesting things and hear all sorts of interesting things,” he said. “The world is full of interesting, incredible things.”
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books detail the lives of Precious Ramotswe and her friend and business partner Grace Makutsi, two women in Botswana’s capitol Gaborone, running the detective agency the series is named for and helping their friends and neighbors solve mysteries big and small.
“I don’t write crime novels. She (Ramotswe) doesn’t deal with crime, she just deals with problems in people’s lives,” Smith said.
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Born in Zimbabwe, he was a law professor in Botswana for in the early 1980s before moving to the United Kingdom. He now lives in Scotland, but said he visits Botswana almost every year.
He said being a white man in Scotland isn’t an impediment to writing characters like Ramotswe. A novelist’s job, he said, is to be able to imagine and describe experiences different from one’s own.
“My books are set all over the world and deal with all sorts of people who have all had very different historical experiences. That’s part of being a novelist. You learn to emphasize with all different kinds of people. You have to be interested in the lives of others.”
In the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Botswana setting is central to the story, with warm descriptions of both the capitol and the countryside and the people who live there.
“I think people who don’t really know sub-Saharan Africa often really don’t have the right idea about it,” Smith said. “They see images of war and famine and problems of various sorts portrayed in the media. But the other side of the coin is people leading decent lives, often with great generosity of spirit. The joyous, positive nature of that is important for me to portray. The kindness and decency that you come across, that’s really important. I feel if the No. 1 Detective Agency books can portray that and get that across, that’s fine by me.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the series. Smith said when he started out, he never imagined he’d still be telling these stories two decades later.
“I had no idea I was beginning what was to become a very long literary conversation with this set of characters,” he said. “I must say, I’ve enjoyed it greatly. I’ve enjoyed the fictional relationship with these characters ... It’s rather like, I suppose, meeting an old friend.”
He said even though they are characters that sprung from his imagination, in some ways they’ve taken on a life of their own.
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“I think that characters in fiction, particularly when you spend a certain amount of time with them over the years, acquire a certain amount of reality ... The emotions we experience when we read fiction are very real. The tears you cry are real tears, our emotions are very engaged. We feel the immediacy and the texture of reality in the fictional realm.”
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If you go
• What: Book reading and conversation with Alexander McCall Smith
• Where: First United Methodist Church, 214 E. Jefferson St., Iowa City
• When: 7 p.m. Nov. 12
• Tickets: Tickets available with purchase of “The Colors of All the Cattle” from Prairie Lights. Call (319) 337-2681 or visit the store, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City, to reserve.